Optimistic thinking

A brief introduction to the concept of explanatory styles and how it can be used to help identify pessimistic thinking and move towards optimism.

During the research phase for my resilience programme I did a lot of reading about optimism and its benefits for both our mental and physical wellbeing. One thing I found particularly interesting is the concept of explanatory styles, taken from Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism.

Explanatory style identifies the traits of optimistic and pessimistic thinking through how we interpret the major cause of problems, or negative events, in our lives.

Someone prone to pessimistic thinking believes that:

  • negative events will persist and will always affect their life in some way
  • the cause of the event is universal and connected to other bad things that happen
  • they, alone, are to blame

On the other hand, optimistic thinkers believe that:

  • negative events are temporary and will soon pass
  • there is a specific explanation or cause that is unrelated to other bad things that happen
  • other circumstances, or people, are to blame

You can put these ways of thinking on sliding scales:

Three sliding scales for each of the explanatory style dimensions: permanence, pervasiveness and personalization.

I’ve found it helpful to use this concept as a way of identifying my own negative, or pessimistic, thinking. The sliding scale makes the two explanatory styles seem less polarised and therefore possible that through a subtle shift in perspective you can move towards a more optimistic outlook.

Here are some questions I ask to help challenge my thinking and facilitate the move from pessimism towards optimism:

  • What evidence is there to support this explanation of what’s happening?
  • How can I reframe my perception of this situation?
  • What am I in control of in this situation?
  • What purposeful action can I take to make the situation better?

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